Norway’s modern-day goddess of textile arts
Sissel Blystad’s art continues to evolve and enchant
Weaving and spinning are deeply ingrained in Scandinavian culture. In ancient Norse mythology, the goddess Frigg or Freya, who was married to the god Odin, is known for her prowess in the textile arts, with her power to spin fates and weave clouds.
And today, Nordic textile arts are perhaps no less magical, as seen in the work of Bergen’s Sissel Blystad, a modern-day Norwegian textile goddess. Perhaps no other artist has been more important to the promotion, continued experimentation, and display of contemporary textile arts in Norway. Her career has spanned almost half a century and continues to evolve from her studio at her Bergen studio at the USF Verftet.
One of Blystad’s most impressive and compelling works is “Landskap,” or “Landscape,” a public art piece commissioned for Stortinget in Oslo. This iconic masterpiece it is one of the most famous contemporary works of art in all of Norway.
An artistic journey of innovation
With the textile arts, aesthetic value is prioritized over utility. Works are created from natural or synthetic fibers and other components, including fabric and yarn. The focus is on the materials and manual labor on the part of the artist as part of a given work’s significance.
Blystad began her career using a more traditional loom weaving process in her first works, but over time, her techniques have evolved, as she has created her own method of working with fabric art. Unleashed from traditional notions of her craft, she has brought something individual and unique to Norwegian textile arts.
The piece “Horisont” from 1972 is one of Blystad’s earliest pieces and introduces her work. The artist incorporates horizontal stripes that delight like a vibrant Mexican serape. Its sophistication in terms of composition is owed to her choice of color, as well as her attention to shadow, and it demonstrates her ability to create nuanced graduation of tones. The intensity of the sun affects your sight, as if you are peering at the actual blazing star.
A New York sensation
Although well known in Norway, it was not until 2016 that Blystad held her first exhibit in the United States, at the Hester Gallery in New York City. She called her solo show “Glenne,” meaning “glade” in English.
With this show, Blystad had done something new, going beyond traditional textile techniques. According to a New York Times review by Martha Schwendener, “These pieces are not woven.”
Indeed, the works on display were made with pieces of hand-dyed wool laid down on a shaped support—with stunning results.
Interestingly enough, this innovation was in part born out of necessity. It was unfortunate circumstances that led Blystad to this method. The artist explained: “After an accident, which broke both my arms, I used the three months to make my website—by myself! Then I started to glue things. Since then, I have been gluing instead of weaving.”
This American debut exhibit was very well received. The show was noted as one of the “15 New York Gallery Shows You Need to See” by Art Sy, and The New York Times featured her exhibit in “What to See in New York Art Galleries This Week,” prestigious acknowledgments in a town with a competitive art scene and a bevy of gallery choices.
In a wool piece “Untitled” from 2015, the diamond shape and quadrants, are reminiscent of the Mexican Ojo de Dios (God’s Eye), the yarn ornaments I remember making as a Girl Scout. But unlike the simple patterns we made as children, Blystad includes her iconic horizontal lines and adds depth and dimension with a bisected, sensual curve filled with ice blue, white, and gold. The eye is drawn to the bright hues of the tequila sunrise splashes and fuchsia flashes.
Reminiscent of the one-time ubiquitous rag rugs or perhaps a ’60s bullseye, this piece is composed of concentric woolen circles. The outer rings are quieter with their earthy tones, but Blystad’s work is not meant to be silent, as she throws in a rich lavender circle juxtaposed with a rust neighbor. You continue your journey through the softer tones, until you are met by a shock of pink tinged with orange, both encircled with the return of the rich lavender.
Rose-like, with its undulating edges and overlapping layers, the shape and pattern speak to Blystad’s artistic skill. Its fractured juxtaposition of colors can perhaps be seen as a nod to 1960s pop art. The artist’s hand is seen and felt in this work, typical of the Arts & Crafts movement of the early 20th century that resurged in the ’60s and ’70s, with a plethora of traditional crafts and handiwork that continues to flourish through the work of Blystad and other contemporary artists.
“Glassen” (2006) is a bewitching treasure chest of gems. Notice the distinctive sparkle of each, requiring a painterly approach within fiber, in terms of light, dimension, and perspective. One wonders what it took in terms of planning and technique to achieve such a stunner.
To see an entirely different approach from this artist, gander at the beautiful and subtle gray tones seen in “Glenne” (2012). Soft to the eye and much less chaotic in pattern with its repetitive forms, it is very soothing. Can you believe that it is the back of her work? Amazing!
This was done intentionally, according to Blystad’s U.S. representative, Alex Ross (originally from the Hester Gallery, but now at Downs & Ross): “The gray work is the back of ‘Glenne,’ indexing the hybrid nature of the work’s construction on a found support.”
Although Blystad is known as a fiber artist, she also works in other mediums. She has created drawings with colored pencil that are intriguing. In this untitled drawing, the use of color is surpassed by the focus on the twisted dimensions. The artist’s use of color does not disappear; however, it is used to punctuate the form.
Daily exercises and new directions
To see Norwegian textile traditions through Blystad’s journey is exciting, as they move into an entirely other level. The artist explained her path:
“I am most interested in today. I will not go back to the loom. The last few years, my works have become smaller and smaller … It started with a special open studios project, which was postponed, because of the coronavirus, but I continued making them, and some will be exhibited in Oslo during the summer 2021.
“It is a satisfaction to make small works, instead of the big ones. I call them ‘Daily Exercises’ …. And perhaps after doing these small pieces, something else will happen, but I don’t know what. That is how I work …”
We can’t wait to see where this thread will carry Blystad (pun intended). Viewing her work as a whole, with all its variations in design, composition, and color, there is a remarkable breadth and depth in her art, a testimonial to the idea that one cannot stay relevant without exploration and change.
To see more of Sissel Blystad’s work, visit her website at: www.sisselblystad.no.
Learn more about Sissel Blystad’s work at the Hester Gallery at Downs & Ross in NYC at hester.nyc/artist/sissel-blystad.
This article originally appeared in the July 23, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.